For lower Southeast: Variable weather conditions forecast

Weather prognosticators are predicting variable conditions throughout the remainder of the spring in the lower Southeast. In addition, they're forecasting a typical summer and an active hurricane season, though not as active as last year.

For the spring and early summer period in the lower Southeast, the Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC) is predicting that the next few months won't be wetter, drier, warmer or cooler than normal. The SECC is made up of six Southeastern universities, including Auburn University, the University of Georgia, the University of Florida, the University of Miami, Florida State University and the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

“With the Pacific Ocean in a neutral phase now and for the foreseeable future, there are no indications that the climate of the next few months will be either wetter, drier, warmer, or cooler than normal,” according to SECC scientists.

It's the phenomena of El Nino/La Nina that give a degree of predictability to the climate of the Southeast, they say. “The absence of one of these events — or a neutral phase — often is incorrectly associated with climate patterns that are near normal or the long-term average. In reality, neutral conditions correspond to a more variable climate with a wide range of possible outcomes.”

However, they add, with the rainfall, surface, and groundwater surpluses that have accumulated recently in the Southeast, a lack of moisture in the coming months is highly unlikely. “An adequate buffer is now in place against even normal or below-normal rainfall.”

Rain, rain and more rain is the best way to describe the current climate in the Southeast, say the SECC experts. “After a somewhat slow start to the beginning of the year, rainfall totals have been up to three times the normal amount over most of Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The wet conditions have delayed some planting operations from the Florida Panhandle northward, and it could become an issue for field preparations as the peanut and cotton season approaches.”

Georgia's state climatologist agrees that this summer will be typical, with most rainfall coming from afternoon or evening thunderstorms and possible tropical storms. Georgia's weather is now associated with a neutral El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), says David Stooksbury with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

A neutral ENSO, he explains, is one not marked by an El Nino, when surface water of the Pacific Ocean along the equator is warmer than normal, or a La Nina, when the water is cooler. El Ninos bring cool, wet winters and springs to the Southeast while La Nina winters and springs are typically warm and dry.

During the drought between 1998 and 2002, a La Nina pattern kept winter rain from adequately recharging groundwater reservoirs and soils, says Stooksbury. A neutral ENSO has “variable weather,” meaning it could be warm and dry one week and cold and wet the next. The winter of 2003-2004 also was a neutral one, he says.

This past March brought most of Georgia's 12 to 17 inches of rain since the first of the year, according to the Georgia Automated Environmental Monitoring Network. “The rain has done a good job of recharging the soil moisture. Farm ponds are filled and the reservoirs are in good shape,” says Stooksbury.

The variability of the neutral ENSO will even out as summer approaches, he says, and Georgia can expect to have a typical, humid summer with temperatures in the mid-80s and 90s and spikes near 100. The heat should generate hit-or-miss showers, he adds.

But localized droughts can occur quickly during Georgia's hot summers, warns Stooksbury. Two to three weeks without rainfall in an area can be enough to hurt crops and have an economic impact, he says.

Meanwhile, one of the nation's top hurricane forecasters is calling for another active tropical storm season this year, though not as bad as last year when a succession of storms battered the Gulf Coast and caused flooding as far north as western North Carolina.

Colorado State University's William Gray, who is known for the accuracy of his forecasts, is predicting 13 named storms this year. Seven of these will grow into hurricanes, he says, with three of those becoming intense storms of Category 3 or above.

Last year, one of the most active in history, saw 15 tropical storms with nine becoming hurricanes — six of them intense hurricanes.

The yearly average since 1950 is 9.6 names storms, with 5.9 hurricanes and 2.3 intense storms. Tropical storms are named when they reach wind speeds of 39 miles per hour or more. They become hurricanes when their winds top 73 miles per hour, and they are considered intense storms at 111 miles per hour.

The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June through November, is expected to be strong again this year because there's no active El Nino in the Pacific Ocean, says Gray. In years when the warm-water phenomenon is strong, it helps create winds across the Atlantic that shear off the tops of hurricanes, robbing them of their punch.

Water temperatures in the north Atlantic also are expected to be warmer than usual this year, providing fuel for hurricanes, he says.

A high-pressure system, known as the Bermuda high — which can help steer hurricanes toward the East Coast or away from it, depending on its position — is likely to be in the same position as last year, when several hurricanes hit the Florida coastline.

Gray says there's a 73 percent chance that a major storm — Category 3 or above — will make landfall along the U.S. coastline this year. The average for the last century is 52 percent. Four hurricanes hit Florida last year — a modern-day record for a single state that experts say is unlikely to be matched anytime soon.

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